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An estimated seven million Brits are involved in illegal downloads of music, movies, software or games. This digital piracy is resulting in "huge economic losses" and confusion about copyright law, according to a study by UK government advisers published on Friday.

The 85-page study, commissioned by the Strategic Advisory Board for Intellectual Property (SABIP), and entitled Copycats? Digital Consumers in the on-line Age (pdf), warns that shifting attitudes may be an uphill struggle. Researchers from the UCL’s Centre for Information Behaviour and the Evaluation of Research (CIBER) found that on one peer-to-peer network at midday on a particular weekday, there were 1.3 million users sharing content.

From this observation the researchers make some dizzying statistical assumptions to draw up a guesstimate of overall piracy losses, which they claim run into the billions:

If each “peer” from this network (not the largest) downloaded one file per day the resulting number of downloads (music, film, television, e-books, software and games were all available) would be 4.73 billion items per year. This amounts to around £120 billion in content being consumed annually - for free.

Students of BSA piracy loss figures will note that a similar technique of equating every item downloaded as a lost sale features in UCL's statistical methodology. The UCL team also reviewed the available literature and spoke to entertainment industry representatives and regulators in researching its report, which it stresses is only preliminary.

The study makes little mention of the need to establish wider availability of commercial movie downloads, for example, instead preferring to concentrate on the sociology of file-sharing and the possibility that further studies might look into ideas for public awareness campaigns. Hollywood studios, meanwhile, have recently focused on keeping cinema attendances up via the promotion of 3D films.

Findings from the SABIP study are likely to be used in the formation of government policy, in areas such as putting pressure on ISPs to withdraw service to persistent illegal file-sharers. ISPs are reluctant to police the web.

David Lammy, Minister of State for Intellectual Property, said, "The report helps put the scale of the problem into context and highlights the gaps in the evidence which need to be filled. It is important that we understand how online consumer behaviour impacts on the UK economy and the future sustainability of our copyright industries.

"Illegal downloading is not an issue confined by national boundaries. I am sure other EU States and their copyright industries will find this report of use in the development of policy." ®

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